Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Business of College Sports versus Student Athletes

“The business of college athletics”  describes how athletic directors and college Presidents refer to the college athletic enterprise. Entire programs and degrees are now dedicated to the business model of sports. My conference, the Pacific 12, one of the few conferences left that can actually count its actual membership, just signed a massive multi-media deal that can be worth 3 billion dollars over the next 12 years. Yes 3 billion dollars! The sheer amount of money involved certainly points to the word business. I distrust the phrase and remember a conversation with Mark Emmert of the NCAA when he talked about how much he dislikes and worries about it when athletic directors talk about "the business" of college athletics. We worry because the business model undervalues education ans students.

Language matters; it sinks in and shapes how we think about and perceive reality. The mania about "paying athletes" is driven not only by ignorance of the economic realities of sports and by the ignorance of what student athlete life is actually like, but by the belief that players are employees of large corporations who are exploited them. “Paying” athletes only makes sense if  business explains and justified the enterprise.

The metaphor and concepts have sunk deep into the consciousness of college sports. For one, college sports is expensive and in this time of budget cuts, programs are being pushed to generate revenue streams and minimize the internal subsidy that central university funds must provide for them. Any athletic director worth his or her salt is obsessed with generating maximum revenue and as they will tell you in business speak, to garner revenue, they must "deliver a good product" or provide "a great customer experience at the games."

The average elite college program employs more marketing and fund raising and ticket folks than non-football coaches. Schools redesign mascots to raise revenue streams from paraphernalia and do focus groups to create children's mascots that might not scare kids. Tradition, community and identity matter far less than consultants and TV and T-shirt friendly logos.

Remember the colleges themselves push this model when they demand that athletic programs become economically self-sufficient. This drives the fund raising; this drives the demand for stadiums; this drives the obsession with recruiting to get winning teams. Winning teams "fill the stands" and generate demand for "eyeballs" for television windows. It also drives much of the dynamic behind expansion or movement among conferences as conferences seek to lock up markets and geographic areas or "trophy" teams that draw national attention.

So athletic directors goaded by Presidents and Boards of Regents and local pride and fund raising and marketing imperatives push coaches to put "great product" on the field to deliver bodies and eyeballs.  I witnessed an athletic director fire a coach who had just returned from the NCAA's for the fifth time in seven years and graduated all her players for seven years. Why? The AD wanted more "sizzle" and a more "entertaining" brand of sports. Winning is not enough, coaches must win and entertain.

The real problem with this set of metaphors and language lies in what it does to student athletes. First, the "business" model has no room for students; the business model downgrades the mission of education. The ideal of a student becomes a "transaction" cost of winning. Schools need to keep the athletes in school and eligible, but only for the purpose of winning to generate revenue.

Second, the business model not only degrades the student ideal and reality, it transforms the student-athlete’s life. Students spend thirty hours a week on athletics when not in season. Second seasons flourish and 40,000 people fill spring football stadiums for intra-squad scrimmages. Athletic demands now fill their entire year and studying is devalued even as it is marketed and trumpeted.

Third, the business model transforms student athletes into commodities. The athletes and their teams are products produced to generate revenue. In most elite programs the football and basketball programs consume everyone’s time and focus because they generate the revenue; the Olympic sports become an afterthought or the only place where the ideal of student athletes can still exist. Student athletes reduce to commodities produced and marketed and sold to generate revenue and reputation and visibility for the university. No wonder some elite athletes in revenue sport mutter about being paid leaving aside the rather good life they have. No wonder these athletes wonder why the continued use of their likeness after they graduate should be the “property” of the school.

But this is the point, isn't it. College sports should be about student athletes, it should have student athlete welfare at its moral core. The ideal of college athletics and the reality for the vast majority of college student athletes, including the 99 percent of elite football and basketball athletes, who will not be professional athletes, should celebrate and attend to their achievement, welfare, teams, health and competition.

If you go to banquets of college teams, you experience this reality, not the business outcomes. Win or lose, the players remember and celebrate each other, "I luv you guys" gets repeated by men and women's teams. They give awards to each other and coaches tell stories of victory and defeat and honor the young men and women. The good teams celebrate the students who will graduate. The parents and students cry remembering that college athletes are students, not commodities.


  1. It's all about good programs 'cos they can shape us as professionals.

  2. Big money is really present in college sports, yes it is a separate business in itself. Gone were the days when college athletics is just about encouraging students in sports.

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